"Spy Drama Debates Patriotism, Politics, the “Greater Good,” and the Bomb"
What You Need To Know:
Despite having all the ingredients for an intriguing spy thriller, RED JOAN starts slowly and never gains speed. The suspense is muted with ideological exhortations rather than telling an enthralling story. Also, Joan’s decisions and love interests seem unconvincing for a character who’s supposed to be one of the brightest minds in England. Finally, RED JOAN has some overt extramarital behavior and a strong humanist worldview. It sides with Red Joan’s wacky reason for betraying her country, which is because she wants neither the West nor the Soviet Union to have the upper hand.
RED JOAN begins in the year 2000, when 80-something, Joan Stanley, is arrested in her suburban London home for treason. She’s hauled off and interrogated by British intelligence, shocked that they’re accusing her of spying for the Soviet Union decades before, during World War II. As she answers questions, the movie flashes back to her Cambridge University days leading up to the war.
A physics student, Joan is portrayed as a studious but naive girl with little worldly experience. Joan’s quickly swept into pro-communist activism on campus by a classmate, Sonya, who’s a Jewish refugee from Germany with Russian ties. Sonya introduces Joan to William and Leo, who are the ringleaders. Despite attending the rallies, Joan remains apathetic about communism and Russia, and is only there for the social experience.
Leo is later revealed as Sonya’s cousin, who has also escaped the Nazis from Germany. Like Sonya, he has Russian roots and begins to slowly seduce Joan both sexually and ideologically. Joan gives in easily to romance but is more stubborn about adopting Leo’s Russian sympathies.
When war breaks out, Leo is arrested and finds himself working for a university in Canada, while Joan graduates and is hired to assist Professor Max Davies with the British equivalent of the Manhattan Project. When word gets around to Joan’s old classmates that she has access to top-secret nuclear information, her communist friends devise a plan to convince her to spy on behalf of Mother Russia.
When Joan runs into Leo on a business trip to Canada, he’s finally able to persuade her to start funneling info to Russia, but it takes him committing suicide before she’s willing to betray her country. She begins the dangerous game of hide and seek with British authorities as they get wind that there’s a spy planted in the atomic bomb program. Because of her gender, Joan is never suspected. She’s even protected by Professor Davies. Their working relationship evolves into an affair, all while he’s unaware of Joan’s furtive behavior.
The death of Leo’s cohort, William, in the year 2000 uncovers Joan’s espionage, and she calls on the help of her son, Nick, who’s a minister for the British government. He’s deeply hurt by her betrayal and feels that loyalty to country should supersede loyalty to his mother in this case. Joan is distraught in her old age as she struggles to find an ally and explain why she did what she did. The movie cuts back and forth between Young Joan and Old Joan’s stories. Finally, she reveals why she chose to spy for Communist Russia. [SPOILER] It had nothing to do with communist sympathies and everything to do with putting Russia on equal footing with the West so that everyone could share the same knowledge, and another world war would never happen. Joan says her feelings were influenced by all the destruction in Japan when the United States dropped two atomic bombs to convince Japan’s military dictators to surrender.
Despite having all the ingredients for an intriguing spy thriller, RED JOAN starts off at a slow pace and never gains any speed. The suspense is muted with ideologic exhortations, and it’s clear that the movie’s purpose is to debate the merits of patriotism, globalism, communism, and western ideals rather than tell an enthralling story about a young woman’s adventures in the worlds of science and espionage. Joan’s decisions and love interests come across as unconvincing, especially for someone who’s supposed to be one of the brightest physics minds in all of England. The movie is based on a novel inspired by a true story, so this problem may lead viewers to wonder how many liberties were taken in this fictionalized story. Also, it’s hard to reconcile the hapless, non-committal Young Joan first depicted with the active Young Joan who suddenly has lots of agency and guile to perpetrate treason and espionage. This is especially true given the movie doesn’t do a great job developing Young Joan’s change in attitude from patriot to spy. That said, anyone with an interest in history and politics might find more entertainment in RED JOAN than the average viewer.
In the end, [SPOILERS FOLLOW] Joan is portrayed as a key figure underlying the Cold War. Had she not made the decision to spy, the Soviet Union would have fallen behind the West, and that wasn’t acceptable in her eyes. She chose not to pick sides during the Cold War and is instead a proponent of globalism. While not outright attacking patriotism, her character blames it in a roundabout way for human conflict. It’s also telling that Joan’s son in the movie is against her rationalization for treason at first, but comes around to defend her at the end. Of course, by helping to give the Soviet Union the atomic bomb, traitors like this fictionalized character and her real-life counterpart helped the Soviet Union continue to oppress millions of Europeans for 45 years, including killing many Russians during the age of Joseph Stalin, who died in 1953.
The movie’s foul language and violence are relatively mild in RED JOAN, but illicit, extramarital affairs and brief explicit nudity both make a couple appearances. RED JOAN also has characters lying to and deceiving other people. Ultimately, MOVIEGUIDE® finds RED JOAN unacceptable for its humanist, anti-patriotic worldview and overt communist elements as well as its lewd content.